This beginner’s guide to birds’ nests covers what nests are, how birds build them, how you can help (by NOT offering hair, string, lint etc) and how to help baby birds, if you find them. Birds build beautiful nests that are amazing in their architecture. They work hard to build nests to protect their young. Then when the young have flown the nests, these biodegradable nests totally disappear, and do no harm to our planet.
As you already know, birds build nests in spring as temporary homes to keep their eggs, until hatching. Different birds have different routines: some males get involved to sit on the eggs, others scarper after mating (sounds like some men!) Some birds lay nests on the grounds and others high up in trees. A few birds don’t use nests (they use those built by other birds) and pigeons can nest up to 8 times a year. Chicks depart nests depending on their breed (eagles stay the longest).
So how does a bird know how to make a nest? Who knows? It’s the same fascinating science as to how they migrate or know which berries are poisonous. Most ‘glue’ their nests together with their own saliva, mud or even silk from spider webs. Some even put in herbs and spices, to keep away bacteria. Obviously they have predators to worry about too, which is why they tuck their nests in trees and nestboxes.
Nearly all nests are made in the shape of a cup, for easy sitting-on. Most birds in England use the branches of a tree, surprisingly close to the ground in some cases (this is because some high-flying creatures like owls may eat their babies, once hatched). This is why you will find sparrows and cardinals often nesting in your garden, at lower altitude than birds of prey. But of course this then makes them vulnerable to foxes and cats. Birds of prey usually make flat nests high up in trees or by cliffs (they have few predators apart from man). In the US, a nest made by a bald eagle can weigh the same as a car! Other birds build nests on or near water.
Apart from seeing nests in trees, you likely won’t see too many birds in nests. But you will probably see birds with twigs in their mouth, a sure sign they are building a nest.
Should You Use Nestboxes?
With birds losing tree and other habitats, you likely know that providing nestboxes is a good idea. However, due to the amount of predators birds (esp. baby birds) have, it’s really important to only site them somewhere safe. If you have cats nearby, it’s best not to encourage birds to your garden (and keep killer kitties inside at dusk and dawn, when birds are feeding or collecting food). RSPB has useful information on how to provide safe nestboxes for garden birds and birds of prey. Owls have lost so much of their habitat that half our owls now use nestboxes for eggs, so always site in quiet undisturbed locations.
If you use them, do follow the information to keep baby birds and their parents safe. Different birds need different sized holes in nestboxes. And when they are empty (always ensure chicks are gone), use boiling water to kill parasites and fleas, before drying out and replacing the lid (don’t use chemicals or flea powders). Many nestboxes also get raided by insects or squirrels (looking for a tasty raw egg), and some birds fight each other, so do visit the link above, to do your homework before siting nestboxes. All of this happens at dawn, so you may not even be aware. Five minutes study can help prevent a baby bird tragedy.
Don’t ‘Donate’ Things to Bird Nests
Many well-meaning people leave our hair and cotton for birds to make their nests, but most things you donate do more harm than good. For more info, visit Audobon (US version of the RSPB). In summary:
- Dryer lint may be soft and fluffy, but it goes mouldy in the rain and can choke. Most is also packed with chemicals and fragrances (which attract predators). It also falls apart in rain. Wet lint stops feathers from insulating or being waterproof.
- Long human hair can get wrapped around bird legs (just like it cuts off your circulation if you’ve got it wrapped around your finger). If you use it, only do so if it’s free from chemicals (dyes, hairsprays, gel or perfumed shampoo) and cut it into short pieces of 3 to 4 inches. Pet fur is fine, as long as your pet has not recently been chemical shampoo, or had recent medication or flea/worm treatment.
- Same with avoiding string, ribbon or cotton (even biodegradable string can strangle). Ensure weed barrier fabric is safely tacked and tucked in, as it’s not safe for birds. They often pull it up, if they see a strand sticking out.
- Avoid pine needles and cocoa mulch in the garden (for both pet safety and toxins, as one can puncture the stomach, the other has a chemical used in chocolate that harms).
Birds have building nests for thousands of years, without our help. As long as they have organic grass clippings, leaves and twigs and mud (and spiders are plentiful) they will be fine. If you want to help, just leave out some shredded leaves (no chemicals) and wool (if you have organic sheep). Organic gardens also encourage food for growing chicks (like caterpillars). If you live with furry friends, know what not to plant to keep pets safe in the garden.
Should You Replace a Baby Bird to Its Nest?
You likely have heard that in most cases, the parents are usually close by. And you should leave the bird. But what if the bird is injured, or you can’t find the parents? Again, RSPB has good info to follow, they are the experts. In summary, try to leave the bird where it is (if it is on a road etc, then move it as short a distance as possible to somewhere safe, so the parents can find it, without too much of your scent). If it is injured or the parents don’t return, put the bird in a quiet ventilated box (Wild Bird Rehab has excellent advice: use a paper bag or string-free towel or t-shirt on the bottom to protect, but not endanger). Then call your vet or local wildlife rescue). If the baby bird is fully-feathered, it likely has left the nest, ready to explore the world!
A Beginner’s Guide to Rearing Baby Birds, is by the founder of Bedfordshire Wildlife Rescue (they don’t appear to have a website now, so this book helps to give them funds to keep going). It includes a colour ID chart (to know the species of baby bird) and tips on how to help (and when to leave alone) and how to reunite a bird with its parents (or if not possible, to give the best chance to grow into a wild adult).
Books on Birds’ Nests
- Nests, Eggs, Birds is an illustrated and educational guide to how dozens of birds (robins, birds of paradise, crows, owls, penguins and more) make their homes and lay their eggs. Did you know that the tailor bird ‘sews’ leaves together to make a nest? Or that hummingbird eggs are the size of jellybeans?
- Nests: Fifty Nests & The Birds That Built Them is a beautiful coffee-table book by photographer Sharon Beals, who profiles 50 extraordinary nests. Opening a new window onto the life of birds, these photographs offer astonishing insight into the nature’s most fastidious architects. Lovely images of nests and eggs are set against rich black backgrounds, accompanied by illustrations of the birds that built them.
Children’s Books about Building Nests
- The Nest That Wren Built is a lyrical picture book with poetry on how wrens build nests for their young. Papa and Mama Wren gather treasures from the forest (from soft moss for a lining to some shed snake skin to ward off predators). The lilting stanzas are woven with accurate details on wrens, along with illustrations to reveal the mysterious lives of these birds. And appreciate the wonder of the life cycle around us.
- Bird Builds a Nest uses clear and simple language and beautiful illustration, to inspire children to learn about birds who build nests. Follow Bird as she pulls a worm out of the ground, lifts some twigs that are just the right size and pushes the twigs into place.
- Spring! Time to Build a Nest is a book about how trumpeter swans build nests. It takes them around 2 weeks. They work together, just in time to build a nest for their cygnets.